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Austin's proposed ban on homeless camping wouldn't include legal consequences

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

The Austin City Council is poised to ban camping in four areas of the city that have been overtaken by people experiencing homelessness – but will try to make it happen without any of the tools typically used to enforce such a ban.

In a watered-down amendment to a heftier proposal to get people off the streets and into supportive housing, Council Member Ann Kitchen made clear Tuesday that policing and citations are no longer on the table as potential punishments for disobeying the ban.

The removal of potential legal consequences represented a shift by Kitchen and five council members who co-sponsored her plan. Kitchen unveiled it last month to mixed reviews, with community members saying they are weary over the city's growing crisis and activists saying it's cruel to punish someone on the basis they cannot afford a home and have to sleep outside. 

Larry Lee, 50, lives in a tent set up Tuesday in a gazebo on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail in downtown Austin. Lee, who moved to Austin from Corpus Christi two months ago, says he has been homeless for five years.

As originally written, the proposal directed the city manager to come back to the council this month with an enforcement strategy up to, perhaps, the threat of prosecution for people camping in the banned areas.

In a text exchange Tuesday, the American-Statesman asked Kitchen what impact the ban would have without the threat of legal consequences. She said she's waiting to see what strategies the city manager's office returns to the council after consulting with the city's new homeless strategy officer, Dianna Grey.

"I understand your questions," Kitchen said. "I trust our homeless strategy officer will bring best thinking to the table."

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A homeless person’s tent stands along the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail camp in downtown Austin on Tuesday.

Kitchen went public with her initial plan Jan. 22, days after a local nonprofit announced it had submitted more than enough signed petitions to put language on the May ballot to reinstate the public camping ban that the city council voted to repeal in 2019. A verification of those signatures by the city clerk is pending. Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott has talked about getting behind a statewide camping ban at the legislative session.

Kitchen, in the amended proposal, directs the manager to craft implementation strategies that "DO NOT rely on policing or citations." The strongest enforcement that remains from her initial proposal would be signage indicating the camping ban at the locations identified.

The primary purpose in Kitchen's plan has been to quickly provide housing to people living in areas she says are unsafe. The first phase focuses on large campsites downtown along East Caesar Chavez Street near Congress Avenue and South First Street, as well as in an area east of Interstate 35 at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library. Other areas include encampments at Manchaca Road and Ben White Boulevard in South Austin and at various spots along U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin.

The initiative is called HEAL – an acronym for Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link. If it is enacted, the city manager would have six months to find shelter for the people living in those areas. Housing and services will cost $3 million out of the $68.7 million the city devoted this budget cycle to combatting homelessness. Last week, in going over plans to immediately house people on the streets, the council discussed opening sanctioned campsites. It was an idea the council had previously rejected after viewing them as a temporary fix shifting the city's unsheltered population from one area to another.

Two more HEAL phases would follow the completion of the first phase. Details on those have yet to come.

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David Morgan, 60, has a tent along West Cesar Chavez Street in downtown Austin. Morgan moved from Killeen into the homeless camp across from City Hall three months ago. “I put my foot down here,” he said. “I ain’t leaving.”

The entire plan will go to a vote Thursday and is expected to pass. The next step calls for the city manager to return March 4 with strategies for enforcing the ban.

Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now – the nonprofit pushing for the citywide camping ban reinstatement – said Kitchen's proposal was weakened by the stripping of legal threats.

"Any policy that purports to make camping illegal in a specific area but removes ability for the law to be enforced is fundamentally unserious and undeniable proof that the mayor and council are unserious about public safety," Mackowiak said.

A homeless person camps Tuesday along the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail camp.

Council Members Sabino "Pio" Renteria, Mackenzie Kelly, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter co-sponsored Kitchen's proposal. After the removal of the legal consequences, Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar also expressed their approval for it.

Discussion about the ban comes a week after the council approved the purchase of a hotel in North Austin to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness. The council delayed voting on buying a second hotel in Northwest Austin until this week.

More:Austin City Council considers restoring homeless camping ban in 4 areas